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In Session: Chanting Japanese Hymns as a Lay Buddhist Practice
3: Wasan as a Window into the Religious Worlds of Ordinary Women
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
University of Southern California, United States
During the early twentieth century, many women living in the Tone River Basin belonged to local con-sororities that met regularly to chant wasan (vernacular hymns often identified as nenbutsu) as part of the broader practice of jūkuya kuyō (“Offerings to [the Deity of] the Nineteenth Night”). Collections of wasan used in this context reveal a great number of works that address needs particular to women. Namely, we find wasan aimed at ensuring safe and easy childbirth, successful childrearing, and the avoidance of the Blood Bowl Hell, a hell comprised of uterine blood into which women are said to fall in recompense for polluting the earth with their reproductive fluids. Scholars believe that in many villages, women would gather at least once per month, reciting these wasan and making offerings to deities such as Kannon, Jizō, or Amida, to protect those of childbearing age. This presentation will examine some of the more common wasan associated with protecting the female reproductive body, as well as the related stone images commonly produced by jūkuya kuyō con-sororities. Much scholarship has critiqued the apparently misogynistic Ketsubonkyō (Blood Bowl Sutra) for its condemnation of women’s bodies, but jūkuya wasan (“Nineteenth Night Hymns”) illustrate how the same deities that offered salvation from the Blood Bowl Hell also promised women safe childbirth, an abundant milk supply, and the protection of their children’s health. Using the vernacular, then, these wasan give us an opportunity to better understand how and why certain Buddhist teachings gained ground among ordinary laywomen.